Four months on duty, 20 months of recovery. That's supposed to be the rhythm for German troops on missions abroad. But the reality is different, with longer deployments and shorter recoveries, says the defense ministry.
Ambush attacks, mines by the side of the road and days of waiting in military camps cut off from the rest of the world - deployments in crisis areas mean life in a constant state of high alert. It's far removed from the day-to-day life the soldiers know from home. That's why it's important to the German army, the Bundeswehr, that troops get to go back to Germany regularly for rest and relaxation. The goal is to reach a so-called 4/20 rhythm: four months of deployment followed by 20 months at home.
The Bundeswehr is currently undergoing its most sweeping reform since its inception. The new rhythm is part of that process, which is supposed to be implemented in 2016. The Bundeswehr is already trying to apply the 4/20 system whenever and wherever possible.
That does not seem to be often, the defense ministry replied to an inquiry from the Green Party in the German parliament, the Bundestrag, saying that in one quarter of the cases, deployment lasted longer and in 50 percent of the cases, the soldiers' breaks were shorter. "There is a huge discrepancy between theory and the implementation to the detriment of the soldiers," Omid Nouripour, the Green Party's spokesman for defense policy said.
A nice theory
Four months are a long time to be away from home. But it's still bearable, the Bundeswehr says. In that time span, not too much is happening so that soldiers can find their way back into home life with family and friends without too many problems. This is easier than it would be after six months or even a year, according to the Bundeswehr. That's why Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière has named the new rhythm one of the goals in the Bundeswehr's realignment.
That's a nice theory, Nouripour told DW. But in reality, the troops can't rely on the four-month-rule at all. According to the Green politician, the defense ministry's reply showed "that the promise of reorganization and the reliefs it would bring hasn't been kept." He added that the reforms haven't helped soldiers and their families organize their lives.
Not a luxury problem
Other NATO countries deploy their troops for much longer periods than the Bundeswehr. American soldiers are sometimes gone for up to 15 months. Some Finnish officers are stationed abroad for more than a year, but are granted regular home visits.
Ben Wilkinson, spokesman for Britain's defense ministry, told DW that the usual deployment time for British soldiers was six months. But when the routine turnover collides with special events like the Afghan elections, the mission could be extended to nine months.
The same goes for German soldiers when a special task requires a longer deployment, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kolatzki from the Bundeswehr's mission guiding force said: "One example could be a battalion commander who needs to stay in touch with the Afghan side for a long time. He needs to educate their soldiers and accompany them in the field so that the human relationship can be optimized."
Still, too short a recovery time and lengthy missions abroad are not a German luxury problem, Nouripour says. To him, the US with its long missions are a cautionary tale: "American troops also have a higher mental strain and significantly more cases of illness - that's a fact," Nouripour said. "The other problem is the ability to schedule things."
The Bundeswehr plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, two years before reforms are fully implemented.
Current events beat schedules
The planning of missions is a problem that both Bundeswehr leaders and every single soldier face. Each mission requires the best possible personnel. But there isn't an unlimited number of specialists and paramedics, so their deployment requires perfect coordination. The development of political situations, however, has a way of wreaking havoc on the task force's carefully laid out plans, Col. Kolatzki says. "There are currently 13 places of deployment for us," the Bundeswehr spokesman said. "And just look at the mission in Mali, or Turkey, that we started earlier this year. Of course, we weren't planning for those a year ago."
Despite missions that often come at short notice, the Bundeswehr always sees to it that troops are well prepared for their deployment, a spokesman for the defense ministry stressed in a conversation with DW.
Preparations are intense and include an individual talk with the commander, detailed information about the deployment location and the mission, and psychological counseling. A soldier who is not focused on his task poses a danger to himself and his fellow soldiers, the spokesman said. That's why there should not be any distractions coming from the soldier's home life: "The anchor of a harmonious home is decisive for making it during the mission," the defense ministry spokesman told DW.